Visiting workshops or homes to watch people make things by hand is one of our favorite traveling activities; in southeast Asia, we learned how to make incense, rice noodles and tofu. And now in India, where traditional handicrafts are still a way of life for millions of people, we’ve had more opportunities to see beautiful things take shape.
India is justifiably famous for its textile industry.
In Jaipur, we visited a traditional block-printing house. Block-printing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: designs are hand-carved into blocks of teak, then dipped in ink and stamped onto fabric. Different colors can be layered in, and the design is dried then set permanently through a special chemical treatment.
A hand-carved teak elephant block used for printing on fabric.
Please do not trip over these.
Hundreds of teak blocks in various designs.
Each block can only be used about two thousand times before the design becomes fuzzy and indistinct. That seems like a lot, but a single tablecloth might have three hundred or more imprints.
Skilled artisans can layer in different colors within the same design.
The fabric is placed in a chemical bath that alters some colors and sets the final design.
The city of Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, is known not only for India’s most famous attraction but also for its classical marble inlay work. This work involves carving shapes into marble, then filling those cut-outs with precisely cut semi-precious stones such as agate, turquoise, amethyst and onyx. Many of India’s significant monuments, including the Taj Mahal, showcase this craft; we were lucky enough to see it done up close.
A marble inlay serving platter in its early stages.
These artisans are carefully cutting semi-precious stones. The bamboo pole is attached to the wheel with string and operates the grinding wheel in a simple but ingenious manner.
Carving the design into marble; flowers and other natural motifs are traditional.
Carved semi-precious stone pieces ready to be placed.
This flower is made up of six individually carved pieces. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this sort of work is staggering.
Like so many other traditional arts and crafts, marble inlay work, which requires thousands of hours of painstaking hand labor, is slowly being revived as people learn to value quality and authenticity again. The workshop we visited ships their marble pieces – some as large as tabletops! – all over the world.
An array of elaborate pieces for sale in the attached shop.
Can you imagine how many hours this took to make?
In the heart of Varanasi’s old city, thousands of people make their living spinning thread and weaving fabric into gorgeous, colorful saris, scarves and bedcoverings. The industry is centered in a rabbit warren-like area that houses both people and machinery. The clacking sound of the looms can be heard throughout the neighborhood.
Thread spools awaiting the loom.
Threading the loom is a complicated process.
Almost every doorway in the old city offers a peek into Varanasi’s main industry.
Even fabrics of a single color have such depth and texture.
More elaborate designs might require numerous thread colors.
Interestingly, the Jacquard loom, which revolutionized the textile industry, was also an important precursor to modern-day computers. The loom, still in use today, holds specially-punched cards laced together in a specific sequence, allowing the creation of complicated designs in the fabric. Early computers received programming instructions from paper tape punched with coded holes. Now go win at your next bar trivia night.
The noise of the looms operating was almost unbearable; of course, people still managed to live and sleep there.
Finished shawls and scarves.
Travel is not always about crumbling monuments and boring history!